A Journalist's View of the Assault on Public Education

What's happening to education is happening across the public sector.
By Juan González

As the united voice of the scholars and teachers at our nation’s colleges and universities, the AAUP has never been more needed than it is today and more crucial to the fierce debate raging across the land, from the poorest public school districts to the most elite private universities, over what American education will look like in the twenty-first century and what role the faculty, the workforce of the education industry, will play. The outcome of this debate—I prefer to call it an “assault” in the guise of a debate—will be critical to preserving freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry, to the survival of high-quality and affordable education at all levels, and to the economic security and professional progress of millions of teachers and professors. Most of all, the outcome will affect future generations of young people, who will need the skills and critical thinking developed in college in order to expand and deepen our country’s long march toward full democracy, toward social justice, toward a world free of violent conflict, and toward a sustainable future for all who inhabit the planet.

I approach the assault on public education as a working journalist and recovering revolutionary. I have devoted some thirty-seven years now to chronicling daily events in urban politics, the economy, crime and law enforcement, education, labor and race relations, and occasionally war and conflicts abroad— what in my profession we typically refer to as “hard news.” I’ve thus been fortunate to earn my living bearing witness to thousands of events, big and small; interviewing the famous, the infamous, and the little known; and trying to explain often complex subjects in a way that makes sense to a broader public. I have had the chance do so from within what I consider the three distinct and separate streams of the press in America: the corporate or commercial for-profit media, where I have worked for more than thirty-five years, the last twenty-seven at the New York Daily News; the alternative, noncommercial, or progressive media, where I have worked for nearly twenty years as cohost with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!; and the ethnic or minority press that was formed by journalists of color who were for so long marginalized by those other two streams.

Along the way, I’ve done a few brief stints of college teaching and have conducted more extended research on the history of Latinos in the United States and on the evolution of our country’s mass media system. None of this makes me an expert on the issues faculty members confront at colleges and universities on a day-to-day basis. I have, however, carefully studied the media’s social role as creators and disseminators of national and racial narratives and the propensity of so many of my colleagues in the press to add more heat than light to public discourse.

Newspapers, after all, were for centuries regarded as the first draft of history. The incidents the media chose to report, their depiction and framing of events, inevitably served as the raw material that was then mined by scholars who came decades or centuries later to chisel more comprehensive historical accounts—at least until recent years, when the Internet and the digital revolution turned everyone with a smartphone into a multimedia cub reporter.

For more than a decade now, I’ve focused on covering the evolution of the American city, on the nitty-gritty of how our cities work, on local governments, budgets and taxation, what is happening to the public commons or public sector—parks, public schools, public transportation, public rights of way, police and fire services, even public utilities. The lessons I’ve drawn may be of some use to those navigating the shoals of the current education debate.

Progressive Era

I was a product of the youth rebellions of the 1960s, and while the nation never moved to a brave new age of political transformation that many in my generation had idealistically expected, we actually did accomplish social and cultural revolution. That revolution, it turns out, was so profound that our nation’s conservative business and political elite have spent the past forty years seeking to undo its legacy.

Take education as an example. While the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling touched off the era of progressive reforms, the push for massive change really flowered with the Berkeley Free Speech battle of 1964, the movement for community control of public schools, the participatory democracy movements at the universities, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Higher Education Act of 1965 (which created our system of low-interest loans and scholarships), title IX, affirmative action and open admissions programs, bilingual education, the mushrooming of community colleges, and the rise of ethnic studies programs. The list of reforms that sought in just a few short years to open up and equalize our system of education is truly mind-boggling. The call for ethnic and multicultural studies, in particular, forced a much-needed reassessment of the entire content of liberal arts education by exposing its basic flaw: how American and European universities had perceived all knowledge through a colonial prism for hundreds of years. And this struggle was fought campus by campus, led at first by small numbers of minority students, their professors, and local community activists, often through intense debates with academic colleagues and even through protests.

The headlong rush toward democratic reform was mirrored in many areas of public life: in job safety and worker rights; in new environmental laws; in policies to provide equal treatment for minorities, women, gay people, and the disabled; in the abolition of abortion bans and racially skewed immigration quotas; and in the rise of antiwar and antinuclear movements that sought to defend the smaller nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia against intervention and domination by our own government and multinational corporations. The passage of voting rights laws, in particular, soon led to a transformation of political power in urban America, with black and Hispanic mayors and city council members and school board members becoming a fact of life in the big cities.

But the efforts to roll back that social transformation have been just as fierce and continue to this day. The nation’s business elite became determined, following the urban rebellions of the 1960s, to regain control of our biggest cities. Those cities, after all, remain the engine and the heart of our economy. For more than thirty years now, there has been an effort under way to limit the rapid expansion of democracy; to privatize public space; to outsource local government functions to private companies; to turn the operation of public parks over to private conservancies and commercial operators; to transfer public revenues to unelected public authorities and special urban economic districts or to use them to offset tax abatements for banks, landlords, and developers; and to remove the poor and lower working class out of the urban cores, reengineering the geography of our cities along the European model, with the lower working class shunted to suburban rings and the wealthy and upper income population occupying the gentrified inner city.

The Fight for the Public Commons

Public schools and public education are a key arena for the effort to roll back progressive gains. The steady dismantling of local and parental control of schools and the growing fixation with standardized testing is a way to control educational content and produce a docile and employable workforce. Charter schools are proliferating at breakneck speed in city after city, with virtually no oversight, auditing, or accountability, followed by privatization on steroids. Online for-profit companies, many of them promoted by the new czars of public education—the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and the Eli Broad Foundation—promise to radically lower the cost of educating our young through online teaching, through real-time tracking of student learning from kindergarten through high school, and by turning teachers from respected professionals with the security of tenure into a fear-driven workforce whose very future can depend on students’ scores on standardized tests that are sometimes so flawed as to be laughable.

At the university level, the change has been astonishing. In 1975, 57 percent of faculty members at American universities were tenured or on the tenure track. Today, seven out of every ten are contingent faculty with no job security, many of whom have only part-time work and no health benefits. In Wisconsin, the state government has moved toward effectively eliminating tenure, allowing the university to decide which programs to keep and which faculty to let go, no matter how long they’ve been there. At institutions across the country, we’ve seen university presidents with outlandish salaries allow billionaire donors to determine which research centers will be built and which programs will be launched, while state legislatures continue cutting education budgets and increasing tuition. And we’ve seen an entire generation of young people victimized and placed in financial bondage by banks and lending companies in league with for-profit schools, who peddle loans for fly-by-night courses, often online, that rarely lead to a job. At more than $1 trillion and counting, this exploitation of our young through loans they will spend their adult lives paying off is one of the truly disgusting financial scandals of our time.

But acknowledging the long list of problems in education should not discourage us. Every day I see examples of amazing resistance to these abuses. Not all these examples make it into the news. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening, or that the message doesn’t get out through social media. I find reasons for hope in the many parents who attend school board hearings objecting to the latest charter school in their district; in the tens of thousands who are organizing themselves and joining the movement to opt out of standardized tests; in the teachers and community groups banding together to seek more funding for their schools; in the college students who have begun to organize resistance movements against onerous loans; in the local political leaders who stand up in state capitals and city councils to press for more local control of their schools; in the spreading fight for universal pre-K education.

In the larger society, there is the powerful immigrant rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the phenomenal spread of the worldwide movement to reverse climate change and fight back against neoliberal international trade accords, and the amazing successes of the gay rights movement. All of these movements are led and energized by young people—young people educated in our country’s colleges and universities.

In the end, no matter how hard the “1 percent” try, we can’t let them force us back to the old days. We’ve come too far and fought too hard to let them do that.

Juan González is a staff columnist with the New York Daily News and cohost of Democracy Now! He is the author of Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America and News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.

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